STATE OF EXCEPTION CITIES: 2013 BOSTON AND ISTANBUL
Conversation recorded with Philippe Theophanidis in Montreal on March 27, 2015
Throughout this conversation with Philippe Theophanidis, we examine two paradigmatic historical examples of cities in the state of exception. We begin with Boston, invested by 2,500 police officers, swat teams and national guard during the manhunt that followed the marathon bombings in April 2013. We particularly examine the legal regime that allowed this deployment to happen, while inhabitants were forced to stay in their homes, many of which were searched. We then talk about Istanbul, a few months later (summer 2013), during Occupy Gezi and the systematic use of tear gas by the suppressive police forces. We use this example to talk about the biopolitics of this state of exception and the policed control of the breathable atmosphere, a notion particularly expressed by the American political movement of Black Lives Matter after an unarmed African American man, Eric Garner was strangle to death by a white Staten Island police officer, while screaming “I can’t breathe.”
Philippe Theophanidis is completing his Ph.D. with the Department of Communication at Université de Montréal, where he also taught for five years. His work addresses the communicative transformations brought forward by the various contemporary crises associated with the globalization of human coexistence. He has published academic articles and book chapters in French and English on a variety of topics, ranging from cinema to contemporary political issues. Some of his essays have been translated into Greek and Persian. He writes online at aphelis.net See his Funambulist contributor page.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE FUNAMBULIST MAGAZINE:
– “Podcast Transcripts: State of Exception City,” in The Funambulist 1 (Sep-Oct 2015) Militarized Cities.
– Philippe Theophanidis, “Boston Marathon Bombings: the Emergency Declaration as a State of Exception”, Critical Legal Thinking, May 28, 2013. Available online: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/28/boston-marathon-bombings-the-emergency-declaration-as-a-state-of-exception/
– Philippe Theophanidis, “Caught in the Cloud: The Biopolitics of Tear gas Warfare,” in Léopold Lambert (ed), The Funambulist Papers, Vol. 2, Brooklyn: punctum books, 2015. Available online: http://punctumbooks.com/titles/the-funambulist-papers-vol-2/
– Léopold Lambert, “Each City Has the Potential to Become a Battlefield”, The Funambulist, February 21, 2014. Available online: https://thefunambulist.net/
– Sarah Stillman, “SWAT Team Nation”, The New Yorker, August 8, 2013. Available online: http://www.newyorker.
– P.W. Singer, “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry and Its Ramifications for International Security”, International Security, Vol. 26, No. 3, Winter, 2001-2002, pp. 186-220.
– Derek Gregory, “The everywhere war”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 177, No. 3, September 2011, pp. 238–250.
– Mark Neocleous, “Perpetual war, or ‘war and war again’ Schmitt, Foucault, fascism”, Philosophy Social Criticism, Vol. 22, No. 2, March 1996, pp. 47-66.
– Matt Apuzzo, “War Gear Flows to Police Departments”, The New York Times, June 8, 2014. Available online: http://www.nytimes.
– Giorgio Agamben, The State of Exception, tr. by Kevin Attell, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
– David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
– Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, New York: Verso, 2010.
– The State of Massachusetts, Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, “After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings”, December 2014. Available online: http://www.mass.gov/eopss/docs/mema/after-action-report-for-the-response-to-the-2013-boston-marathon-bombings.pdf
– Congressional Research Service, “FEMA’s Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer” May 18, 2011. Available online: http://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/RL34146.pdf
– George W. Bush: “Proclamation 7463–Declaration of National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks,” September 14, 2001. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Available online http://www.presidency.
TRANSCRIPTION OF THE CONVERSATION BY AMRIT TREWN:
(transcript edited by Philippe Theophanidis)
Léopold Lambert: Hello everyone. Today, my guest is Philippe Theophanidis, who is a PhD candidate at University of Montreal – we are recording this conversation in Montreal – he’s also the editor of Aphelis and, it’s rare enough to be noted, he’s also a projectionist in a cinema. Hello Philippe.
Philippe Theophanidis: Hi.
LL: So, today we will talk about militarized cities but through an approach of your own research which questions the notions of ‘community,’ and I supposed that’s what we could start with. Maybe if you could explain it a little bit. I know it’s a very annoying question for PhD candidates to explain what they do in their PhD, but, well, we’re going to have to go through it. So, could you please tell us in a few minutes what this is about?
PT: Yeah, of course.
So, the background is Communication Studies. That’s the point from which I’m trying to study the problem of ‘community,’ which is the name one can give to the problem or the idea of being together: living together, organizing our lives in such a way that we can maintain an order or a kind of harmony. My research is more specifically oriented towards the way in which this attempt at living together is facing a crucial, if not deadly, challenge today.
The intuition came years ago when I experienced –although not directly– the Dawson College shooting, in Montreal. This kind of event is not unique to Montreal. Other similar events have happened elsewhere in the world, but more specifically in the United States.
So, a shooting occurs. Somebody who has no previous “history” goes to a public place and starts shooting people, which is really a shocking event. I was struck by the fact that the violence or the deadly occurrence came from within the community itself. There is a difference between a random shooting and a terrorist attack that comes from the outside. In the case of the type of mass murders I’m talking about, it comes from inside the community itself. It comes from us, in a way.
The reaction to those events is also very disturbing and very interesting. In a way, the community builds solidarity around the traumatic event. There is an event that is an attempt to break the community apart, by killing people, but the effect brings the community together. This coming-together is fueled in part by the strong will to reject the killer, to reject the event; which is an old story in a way: the sacrifice that creates communion. The intuition was this very simple observation: that communication seems to go hand-in-hand with a kind of excommunication. And, if we want to go back to the idea of living together or the idea of community, then it seems that we are witnessing nowadays events where the attempt at building a way of living together is actually producing death or producing the very conditions that are threatening our way of living together. In other words, living together today―to make it short―is a process always threatening to turn against itself, into a process of destruction of the life in common. So, there is this kind of paradox or aporia of political life today. And, that’s mostly what I’m interested in and I’m studying these through specific events, which we can talk about if you want.
LL: Yeah, I think that’s what we will start by doing, and maybe have only this notion of ‘community’ peering in filigree for the beginning of the conversation, and I think it will rise back after that.
But, the two examples that I was interested to talk with you about, are about two specific cases of militarization of the city, whether it’s the actually military or some sort of special police force. The first one is the Boston Manhunt of April 2013 when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being, quite literally, hunted by thousands of police officers in Boston and part of the Massachusetts National Guard. The second one was during Occupy Gezi a few months later―Summer 2013―where we saw a deployment of teargas warfare, what you call yourself “teargas warfare,” that was quite unprecedented.
So, let’s start by Boston and the sort of legal aspect of this state of emergency that was signed by President Obama to allow such a deployment of force. And, maybe since it’s been two years, we can maybe remind our listeners of what were the conditions of this specific manhunt and then we can probably talk of what it means for the city.
PT: Two days after the terrorist attack that took place during the 2013 Boston Marathon, President Barack Obama signed an Emergency Declaration for the state of Massachusetts. It’s important to take notice of this declaration because it significantly changes the legal framework within which law enforcement agencies can operate.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, such a modification in the standard operating procedure was made manifest in various ways. There was a massive deployment of law enforcement personnel throughout the city. More strikingly –we saw the photos– police officers in full tactical gear came roaming through the living room of ordinary citizens, who witnessed the search operations while still in their pajamas, a little bit dazed maybe. This was quite a dramatic intrusion by heavily-armed agents in the very intimacy of private homes. We can debate if it was necessary or not, but the fact remains that it happened, and it happened at such a scale that it was impossible to miss. It was an exceptional occurrence from a legal standpoint, but it was not exceptional in its scale: the operation was conducted systematically throughout the city, and hundred of residencies were actually searched without warrant. Thousands of law enforcement officials were deployed, along with members of the National Guard. A recent report suggest that more than 2,500 officers more or less “self-deployed” in Watertown –that is deployed without explicit order–, were the suspects had been cornered.
This particular situation suggests different type of problems. One wonders how the emergency response fits in term of constitutional law. What does the deployment of the National Guard means in term of the traditional division between the civilian sphere and the military sphere? A lockdown was put in place, or at least declared. How about its legal value? Did the authorities suggest the lockdown, asking for the civilians’s cooperation, “Please stay home,” or was it a legally enforceable lockdown, “You must stay home, or otherwise there will be consequences”? Aside from legal considerations, what are the impacts associated with the experience of seeing law officials in full tactical gear?
When one examines those events, what comes out is that it is difficult to answer precisely those questions. In numerous aspects, traditional distinctions were blurred. This I believe is precisely a condition produced by the state of exception in which the events were framed. The “state of exception” is also the name Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben gives to this kind of lifting of the traditional legal structure. In the case of the legal response following the Boston bombings, it becomes a kind of double lifting –an exponential exception– since there is already a state of legal exception declared at a national level in the United States since September 14, 2001. Officially, it’s a State of National Emergency, which was declared by President Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This state of exception has a limit –a sunset provision– of one year, after which it dissolves, unless it’s renewed. And the fact is that it has been renewed each and every year since then, both by the Bush administration and by the Obama administration. The last time was in September 2014, and most likely it will be renewed in September of 2015 as well.
So, within this national state of exception, we have another emergency declaration which provides officials with a different framework of operation or, at the least, which somehow blurs the line between what can be done, what is legal, what is not legal. In Boston, this state of exception―what we saw, what we witnessed―actually expresses a legal condition which is becoming more common. In other words, as it is often observed, the exception tends to become the norm. In Boston, the blurring of those categories unfolds the fact that the intimacy of our lives is not strictly a private matter, but that it is crisscrossed by political concerns as well.
LL: Could you maybe drive us through the sort of both legal and logistic process when a state of emergency is declared, then the main actor becomes a FEMA, which, usually, we tend to see it much more for natural disasters but, actually, there is a sort of blurring between what is a natural disaster and what’s some sort of political situation. Could you drive us through that?
PT: I think one of the starting points could be this traditional distinction between the military sphere and the civilian sphere we’ve been talking about. Wars were conducted outside of the city, outside of the states, in between the states. And, the idea was to preserve or to protect the civilians. So, for example, in the United States there is the Posse Comitatus Act that is supposed to prohibit the use of military forces within the civilian sphere. Military personnel cannot be deployed in the streets of a city. However, this legal framework is open to all kinds of exceptional provisions. In the case of Boston, for example―and, of course, Boston comes after 9/11―, a state of emergency was declared by President Obama that grants FEMA with operating authority and power. FEMA itself operates under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security. The branch of the U.S. government, if I remember correctly, was created after 9/11 specifically to ensure the possibility of enforcing law and order at a higher level within the civilian sphere. In a way, the Department of Homeland Security is the civilian equivalent of the Department of Defense. It is concerns with operations that take place within the nation itself, whereas the Department of Defense ‘s operations take place outside the nation.
The other thing that is interesting to notice is that there are still rules that prevent FEMA from using military personnel to evacuate civilians, for example. FEMA cannot ask military personnel to help evacuate civilians from a city where a catastrophe happened. However, FEMA can ask military personnel for passive defense. So, there is a gray zone where military personnel can be called in for support. And, we have seen this already when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, in 2005.
And, I’m not even speaking about another problem― I guess we’ll leave aside―that has to do with the use of private military personnel, which fall outside the usual legal framework: “We’re not deploying army personnel: they are private force, so it’s strictly contractual, it’s business.” Such private contractors were indeed deployed in Boston after the 2013 bombings. As we have said, the National Guard, which is an extension or a reserve of the Department of Defense, was also deployed.
With all those considerations, we’re still trying to understand this situation from a legal point of view. There are certainly other aspects to consider as well. Whether it’s legal or not, there is an impact on the population: an affective impact, an emotional impact, of seeing law officers who are not military but who are dressed in full tactical gear.
One reason for this distinction between what is military and what is civilian is based on the idea that military forces are not trained to handle regular citizens. Soldiers are trained to make war, to fight on a theatre of operation. They are not trained to deal with civilians. A police officer is specifically trained to act in a civilian environment. What happens to a civilian when he or she comes in close proximity with a police officer dressed up in tactical gear, who actually looks like a soldier? What happens to the officer himself when he’s dressed up like this? It’s a question that is worth exploring: what happens to the behavior of a public officer when he is provided with military gears, weapons and vehicles? Does he operate in the same way under such conditions, or does his behavior change? This problem is also a byproduct of the current development of U.S. military operations in the Middle East. As military troops withdraw, the Department of Defense is retrieving military equipment as well. The material is being re-imported into the United States and redistributed in order to be used by police forces. Law agencies are being provided with military-grade weapons, with army vehicles, mine resistant armored vehicles, etc., not exactly the kind equipment you’re used to see in the streets of the city where you live. There were photos and videos of armored cars in the streets of Boston that were quite striking.
As I said, legal framework aside, one should also consider the emotional or affective impact of the militarization of the civilian sphere itself: what it means for citizens to be exposed to this equipment, whether it’s legal or not legal, whether it takes place under a Declaration of Emergency or not.
LL: Something else I want to talk about―about what happened in Boston, April 2013, and this manhunt―is also the fact that, when you have such a deployment of police and national guard, we tend to think of it for its actual purpose, which is to find this person, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But, obviously, there’s never only one function. There’s never only one aim.
So, all of a sudden, we have hundreds of homes that are inspected. So, somehow, the police is able to establish a new cartography of spaces it was not at all allowed to reach previously. I highly doubt―even whether there was a clear intentionality here or not doesn’t really matter―that, in those searches within houses, there has not been a sort of policing that’s also a sort of production of knowledge about houses that have been searched and the people inside it, and I doubt that this was not centralized after in a given form of a data collection. Is it something you’ve been looking at as well? Or, not so much?
PT: I’m not so much looking at the collection of data, but more broadly at the transformation of law agencies in the United States, and elsewhere in the world. We spoke about it: about looking at the evolution or the development in the ways a government applies its power in various fields of operation. And, the case at hand here, it seems to reflect in part a change of paradigm within the military sphere itself, that is the adaptation to the fact that conflicts are increasingly taking place within urbanized landscapes and not outside of the city or the nation. We’ve seen it already in Baghdad, but elsewhere in the world, too. Earlier, we were talking about what happened in Ukraine. It seems that violent conflicts arise more and more within urbanized space. And, I think that not only the military, but law enforcement agencies as well are trying to adapt to this change in their usual framework of operation, whether or not information about citizens is being collected in the process. For sure, the law agencies used what happened in Boston to develop their modes of operation and to learn how to operate more efficiently within a city.
From the perspective of law enforcement, Boston surely must have been a significant exercise. There are many fake scenarios to which law agencies are asked to participate; scenarios where they fake a biological incident, for example, to fine tune the way they coordinate their response. But an event of the scale of what happened in Boston cannot be staged. What happened after the bombings and during the manhunt surely has been, and will be studied for further improvement and further development regarding operating procedures. I’m sure it will happen again. Agencies will have learned from it. Among many things, one can wonder how legal problems will be dealt with. People were wondering: “So you want to search my house to find a terrorist? Okay, I’m opening the door. You don’t have a warrant, but it’s okay.” Now, what happens if in the process an officer finds something I’m not supposed to have, in my house? Under those conditions, can this be legally brought against me? Lawyers within law enforcement agencies are surely examining those questions: “Now we have this opportunity. We’re searching residencies without warrants. What can we do inside those homes? Can we use the opportunity to extend our power or extend our frame of operation? Does it give us more latitude in our operations?” The state of exception has the effect or this function to transform the legal frame within which legitimate power is usually applied: it modifies the political doctrine of separation of powers. There is this very old tradition in the United States that prevents power from being applied outside of the supervision of a legal authority. It’s the only way to make sure the application of power actually remains legitimate. Otherwise, you have just full-scale deployment of power without any legitimacy: a deployment that takes place outside of an authoritative legal frame.
LL: I think it ought to be reminded that, obviously, we’re not talking about some kind of neutral, urbanized landscape that to which, all of a sudden, would be added some sort of militarized layer and state of exception layer. Actually, the very physicality of the city is very much produced by similar logics. And, when you have this very exceptional situation, it is a bit what was always contained within the city that kind of deploys itself upon the bodies living in it, right? I think we both have that vision in mind when we talk about it.
Moving on to the second example, which is in Istanbul in the Summer 2013 with those massive gatherings that extended to many cities in Turkey, originally to prevent a development project, as there are so many of them in Istanbul. There was this little park, Gezi Park, near Taksim Square, a major node of the city. In defense of this park and against these developments, those protests turned out to be a massive national movement against former Prime Minister of Turkey, who is now the President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Obviously, many of the logics we just talked about for Boston are also at work in Istanbul. But, for this example, we’re going to take a slightly different approach, let’s say. And, I’m being helped here by the text you kindly wrote for the second volume of the Funambulist Papers, which I hope will be released when this conversation is released. So, the text you called “Caught in the Cloud,” where you think about the tear gas warfare that happened in Istanbul around Taksim for quite a few weeks during this gathering. And how, somehow, it helped you to think about how the sort of control and, potentially, militarized control of the living bodies’ atmosphere. Can you explain to us your argument?
PT: The common denominator between Boston and what happened in Taksim square –two events that are only five months apart, that happened really close to one another, and we seem to see more and more of such events; we were talking about what happened in the streets of Montreal two days ago with the student strike and the use of tear gas here―, the common denominator is the fact that it seems in a way that the distinction between the civilian sphere and the military sphere, or the idea of ‘war,’ is not something that can be kept away, at the remote outskirts of some far-away battlefield. That is, all of us are starting to experience more often, and maybe with more intensity, violent events. I would go as far as to suggest that industrial accidents are also a part of that experience.
In Taksim, this incredible video was recorded, very short video, but incredible in that it showed a coordinated and very massive tear gas attack conducted against a crowd of protesters. When I say massive, I mean that within 30 seconds, 40 seconds maybe, a very large space is completely engulfed in tear gas. To such a point that the protesters who are not well equipped to resist the gas found themselves in a situation where their condition of life becomes also the condition of their demise. In order to live, they need to breath, whereas in this very situation breathing meant possibly suffocating or dying. I’m not aware of anyone who died after having being exposed to tear gas in this very specific situation. In another case that happened elsewhere just a few weeks later, tear gas was deployed within a police wagon and all the prisoners present in the police wagon died. It is possible to die from exposure to tear gas.
The use of tear gas illustrates a couple of things. The first one has to do with the ways the tear gas is used as a means of control. The control is not meant for a specific individual. It’s a very general and broad means of control. It’s not like putting handcuffs on someone. You use tear gas when you want to control a crowd in a space, and it’s specifically a human crowd in a given space. And you want a very general control of the situation, of course, because you cannot have a specific control. This is a way of operation which is exemplary of what Michel Foucault called “biopolitics.” You do not control a specific body. You control an environment or an ecosystem within which bodies coexist. But you don’t do specific or discrete control. You just do a very broad control. So, it illustrates this shift towards a mode of governmentality that Foucault called “biopolitics.”
Where it becomes interesting is when we consider how biopolitics operate as the management of life. It’s a way of governing, managing, controlling, ordering life. This is what we witnessed in Taksim Square: an attempt to control or to give order to life within the city. That’s what the police agencies were claiming to do. Maybe the argument that was put forward was: “We have protesters that are causing some trouble. It’s a threat to the rest of the city, it’s a threat to the rest of the civilians, to the state. So, we need to control this.” The tear gas attack shows how the attempt to manage life, to assure ordered conditions of life, actually becomes a kind of politics over life. That is, the attempt at maintaining order for our human togetherness transforms into a mode of operation that is threatening life itself.
That’s what I was saying at the beginning of the conversation.
Another central way to see it is, the government of life becomes a government of death in the way that our attempt at organizing our political synthesis is at risk of producing our own annihilation. That’s the very broad view that we can take from the very specific event that unfolded in Taksim Square.
The lesson I thought was worth taking from those events was the fact that the problems the protesters were facing in Taksim surely was not a specific problem. There are specificities to what happened in Taksim Square, but surely this dynamic―where the attempts we make to manage our lives together is always at risk at transforming into a work of death―, this dynamic is an issue that concerns us all. From this standpoint, what happened in Taksim Square is something worth worrying about for every one of us. Even though there was tear gas in Montreal, the conditions are not same as they were in Taksim or as they are in Syria. Those are very different conditions. But from a very broad perspective, at a global level since we’re now living in a globalized world, we are all faced with this issue, with this threat. We need to find another way. The problem is that we don’t have a solution. We’re looking for a solution, looking to find another way of assuring our coexistence.
LL: Maybe we don’t need to talk about it, but just to go a little bit further in your remarks about the globalized world: We notice that the weaponry and, in particular, the tear gas canister makers are actually the same. There’s probably only a few companies producing them and you find the exact same ones in the American cities or in the West Bank, for example, or…
PT: Yeah, in Brazil.
LL: …and many others. Something that I’d like to push you towards, because it’s very much at the core of this text, “Caught in the Cloud,” is precisely the ‘cloud’: The ‘atmosphere’ in the sense that, when we think of militarized cities, we might make the mistake of thinking too much of it in terms of a sort of cartography, a very surface-space way of thinking that might miss the point of the ‘atmosphere.’ I’ve been quoting this in several conversations on Archipelago, but I’m always going back to this paragraph of Frantz Fanon in A Dying Colonialism saying colonialism is not about controlling a territory. It’s not about controlling the surface of the ground. It’s about determining the conditions, the composition almost, of the atmosphere―I’m paraphrasing it, but the atmospherical conditions in which life is made possible. And, here I’m not paraphrasing him saying, “It is a breathing combat.”
Obviously, the notion of ‘breathing’ on an academic level brings us back to Peter Sloterdijk, which I’m sure you will tell us a bit more about. At a more tragically real level, the last words of Eric Garner that were reused as a sort of slogan of the Blacks Lives Matter Movement in the United States were, “I can’t breathe.” What is it, this “being in the breathable” that Sloterdijk tells us about, and how did you use that in the context of the tear gas warfare in Istanbul?
PT: Yes. Already, in Michel Foucault when he develops his idea of ‘biopolitics,’ there is this emphasis that is put upon the idea of ‘environment.’ Biopolitics is not only about controlling people or populations, but also more specifically about controlling environments. So, as you say, it would be a mistake to think of the city as a surface, a one-dimensional space. The tear gas illustrates the fact that the problem is ecological or environmental. Or, since I’m thinking about this from the perspective of Communication Studies, I see it as an opportunity to broaden the concept of ‘media.’ That is, the use of tear gas and its effect on populations―the fact that we’re controlling the living conditions of people, of protesters, but also of civilians―illustrates the fact that what is at stake here is the milieu. In French, we would say, the milieu is the very space within which we live. Our conditions of existence are deeply embedded in this volume, which Peter Sloterdijk conceptualizes as “spheres.”
This whole theory about “spheres” is has to do with the fact that our lives, and more specifically the ways in which we share those lives together, are determined by an environmental volume or sphere or medium, in which we live. In return, the ways we manage to coexist determines this volume as well. In a way, if we want to push this idea even further, we could say that what is at stake is the fact that we are ourselves the very milieu in we are trying to get along together. We are the very ecological environment within which we live. Being―existing together, being together, whether it’s within a city or in the country, at this level it doesn’t really matter― means that we create a milieu of life that impacts us in return. The concern here is how this milieu of life, this living environment, can become deadly. That’s what we see with the use of tear gas. The use of tear gas in Taksim shows us how a certain mode of being together can turn our environment, our ecology, into an environment where the conditions become deadly, where we become deadly to ourselves. Our modes of being-together turn into conditions that are preventing us from living, that is from living together. That I think was the main thing with the tear gas.
LL: And, as something particularly crucial in the tear gas paradigm―if we may call it like that; And I think you already mentioned it a little bit earlier, but I think it’s also an argument that Sloterdijk is trying to make―, is the fact that a body that is “caught in the cloud,” to reuse your title, will be forced into a situation where choice still exists, at a very abstract level I suppose, between not breathing and breathing, and therefore being victim of the toxification of the atmosphere.
LL: So, somehow there’s a sort of paradoxical participation of the body in its own demise. I think that’s why I’m calling it a paradigm, because I think very often the violence of this politics are very much counting on our own contribution to the violence to which we are subjected. Could you tell us maybe a little bit more about that?
PT: Yes, it’s an observation Sloterdijk made in his book on the genealogy of air warfare [Terror From the Air]. Either you don’t breathe and you die, or you breathe and then you participate in your own demise. That’s the condition in which one finds himself or herself when one is caught into a cloud of tear gas. Either you don’t breathe the tear gas, but then you cannot breathe at all and you die. Or, you breathe and actually cooperate because you will inhale the very toxic agent that will incapacitate you.
From this situation, we can start thinking about our own situation. At the very moment we are speaking, we are not caught into a cloud of tear gas, but we can wonder, nonetheless, just how much we able to behave without participating in conditions that are a threat to our lives. I’m not talking about my individual life, but about to the life we share in common, our social life. Is it possible nowadays, under the conditions of globalization –what Jean-Luc Nancy calls our “ecotechnological enframing”: the fact that the whole world is completely enframed into our technological activity―, is it possible to pretend to step away from this frame, in order to live outside of it? Whatever you’re doing on this planet, you are participating in conditions of coexistence that are shared, in a way, at a global level: in the information or the shaping, in the modeling of this “ecotechnological enframing”. So, under those conditions, how should I behave? Under those conditions, what should I do that will not further develop, or further enhance, or further intensify, a frame within which our lives together will be pushed toward their own demise? How can I participate with others, how can I live with others, without pushing us towards our own annihilation? That would be, to summarize, the crucial issue we are facing.
LL: I’m glad you brought us here, especially talking about where we are right now in a sort of―one might say―”innocent” office. But, it’s true: obviously, the best examples are when you can apply them to where you are presently. If we think of the air we’re breathing right now, we’ll find a little bit of the Montreal pollution; we’ll find the sort of effect of the warm heater that will have influenced the air we’re breathing; and, with the heater not being built in a vacuum, either. There are all those conditions that I think someone like Michelle Murphy―and that’s another conversation I can refer to associated to this conversation―, in her book about sick burning syndrome, starts the book by describing the air condition, the air particles’ course before we do inhale them. That might be a good example to see how…[trails off]
I guess where I’m getting at with all that is also an argument you were trying to make, in the sense that, obviously when it comes to tear gas, we have a very strong intentionality from a control standpoint. But, obviously, we do not need a clear, absolute intentionality to have the violence of what we’ve been describing applying to everyone. So, maybe as a concluding question, would you maybe tell us a bit more about this notion of this more mundane aspect of what we talked about today in a very extreme, intentional way to push it to a more ubiquitous realm?
PT: Yes. Anyone a little bit familiar with Michel Foucault will be aware of the fact that, for him, power is not something that you can assign to a specific agent. As we said, it’s tempting and it’s legitimate in a certain kind of way―for example, with what happened in Taksim―to assign responsibility of what happened to a specific agency: for example, the government. And, as I say, there is certainly a perspective where it’s absolutely legitimate to question the action of the government.
That being said, it will be a mistake to stop there and forget to question at a broader level the fact that, as Foucault wrote, power does not belong to anyone in particular, but instead circulates in between everyone, in between bodies. Where I want to bring us is to the fact that we are responsible as a community. We are responsible for what is happening to us.
Another clear example of this for me is what happened―I believe it also happened during the summer of 2013―in Lac-Mégantic, in the province of Quebec. There was a derailment of a train, a train that was transporting crude oil. The train derailed within the very heart of a small city and exploded, with gigantic and catastrophic consequences. Immediately, the understandable temptation was to point to the railway company, the government, and ask for more regulations, for sanctions, etc. But, if one takes a step back, one is forced to realize that the responsibility for what happened in Mégantic is a collective responsibility. Of course, the train derailed because of some technical reasons, because of a lack of regulations. But the train was containing crude oil: the oil everyone uses at one point or another, even me or you. We don’t own cars. I walk, I take the bus. But, nonetheless, my very existence is intimately linked with the circulation of crude oil on railways all around the world. And, from this point of view, I am also partly responsible for what happened in Lac-Mégantic. From a similar point of view, I’m also partly responsible for what happened in Taksim Square.
So, yes―and we can maybe wrap up with this―, it would be two ways of thinking about the fact that what happened in Taksim, or in Boston, concerns us. It concerns us because we are also subjected to those things, even if we are not subjected with the same intensity. But, it also concerns us because we are, in a way, the agents of those events. We are also responsible: we need to answer, to be able to “respond” to and of what happened. We need to take upon ourselves to realize that we are participating in this global theatre, in this global story that is currently unfolding, sometimes –and more and more so, it seems– with dramatic consequences.
LL: Well, Philippe, thank you very much for taking some of your precious time in your workday to talk with me today. And, I was glad we got to talk about those two particular articles that you wrote in 2013. Obviously, we’ll have them associated to the conversation. Thank you.
PT: Great. Thank you, Léopold.